The Flying Classroom (Choosing an Airplane)

Someone once said the cockpit of a small airplane is the worst place

to learn anything. The airplane is noisy and drafty and demands attention all the time. Nevertheless, while the cockpit of an airplane may not be the perfect place to learn to fly, like the democratic system of government no one has yet thought of a better way.

There’s a wide variety of airplane types available for flight training. Most fall into one of two basic configurations: high-wing or low-wing. For a generation of pilots—many of whom are now of retirement age—the high-wing Piper Cub was what you learned in. So ubiquitous was the Cub that for a time it became the generic term for a private airplane.

But the Cub was edged out of its position as the training leader when Cessna moved the tailwheel of its two-seat 140 to the nose and developed the 150. Many instructors and students consider the 150 (and the newer 152) to be the perfect training airplane. It is forgiving, responsive, inexpensive to operate, and capable of exposing poor technique and rewarding proper coordination, and its slow speed helps cross-country flight hours add up.

The Cessna 150 became the high-wing choice while Piper’s Cherokees, Warriors, and Tomahawks and the Beech Skipper established the benchmark for low-wing trainers. For most students the choice of high- versus low-wing is determined by what type of trainer is used at the most convenient flight school.

Pilots of high-wing airplanes insist that they have a better view of the ground, while low-wing airplane proponents argue that their visibility is better in a turn. High-wing airplanes typically use gravity to carry the fuel from the wing tanks to the engine, while low-wing airplanes employ a fuel pump to be sure the fuel flows uphill to the engine. The low wing increases the effect of the ground cushion during landings and takeoffs, which pilots of high-wing airplanes complain makes it easier to bring off smooth landings in low-wing airplanes. There’s never been any evidence to suggest a pilot’s ultimate skill is in any way related to the location of the wing on the airplane in which he learned to fly.

In the mid-1970s, when the industry was selling almost 40 times the number of airplanes it is now, the manufacturers promoted learning to fly as a way to prime the pump for future airplane sales. Students, introduced to a company’s product line by its trainers, tended to exhibit surprisingly strong brand loyalty as they graduated to larger and larger airplanes. The farm team approach fell out of favor during the roller-coaster recessions of the last decade, when Cessna stopped building the Cessna 150/152, Piper eliminated the Tomahawk from its production lineup, and Beech withdrew its Skipper. Companies stopped building new two-seat training airplanes and the number of available new four-seaters that could be used for training dwindled. Aerospatiale took the opportunity to step into the breach with its Caribbean series and managed a number of fleet sales to university flight schools that were retiring their older airplanes.

Today, students again have some options for the type of airplane in which they’ll train. A combination of new certification rules from the Department of Transport and of foreign manufacturers targeting what they perceive as a potentially profitable market niche has increased the number of trainers available to flight schools. Some of the new airplanes being promoted as the answer to the industry’s training needs are Diamond’s Katana, PZL’s Koliber II, Zenith Aircraft’s CH 2000, and Grob’s G-115s. Cessna produces three of its piston singles (172, 182 and 206).

To provide the most instructional value, a trainershould perform the basic maneuvers by the book. If an airplane has an unusual trait—for example if its stall behavior is too aggressive or too docile, or it has too little rudder authority for crosswind landing and takeoff practice, or it has a tendency to rear off the runway during takeoffs—then the instructor has to be sure the student understands the difference and, ideally, demonstrates it in another airplane.

In many cases, the choice of airplane is academic since the choice of flight school may determine what trainers are available. When you visit a flight school where you’re considering taking flight instruction, spend some time discussing the choice—and cost—of the airplanes in the school’s fleet. Without being a mechanic, you should be able to get a pretty good feel for the level of care the school expends on its airplanes just by their appearance. Talk to students you meet and find out how often the airplanes aren’t available because of maintenance requirements. When a student writes up a maintenance “snag” on an airplane, is it taken care of quickly?

With the diminution in the number of two-seat trainers in the fleet, a number of flight schools began conducting their training in four-seat airplanes, which allowed them to encourage students to ride along as observers as other students train. There are some real advantages to riding along. If nothing else, as an observer, you will be able to get an idea of how you’re doing as a student; with two-seaters, it can be frustrating not to be able to gauge your progress against other students. But more importantly, you can learn a great deal while someone else is manipulating the controls.

Imagine what good practice it would be during a dual cross-country flight to ride in the back seat, following the course on your own set of charts. With your own headset plugged in you’d be able to listen in on the radio—practice that always pays off. If you were observing an instrument training flight, being able to watch the airplane’s position in relationship to the approach, and correlate the picture outside with the picture depicted by the instruments, would be a great way to develop your situational awareness.

There are also advantages for the pilot in having another student riding along. The value of an extra pair of eyes to watch for traffic should be obvious. In addition, the pilot gets to experience the effect of weight on airplane performance. Carrying an observer gives a pilot the chance to experience a variety of weights while he’s still flying with his instructor.